Two photographs of Dadas under hypnosis, reproduced in Ian Hacking’s Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness.
In The Man Who Walked Away, your protagonist Albert Dadas is a tender creature. He’s got a filmy quality. In your words: “It was as though he’d always been there, haunting the landscape, if only you were paying attention.” He wanders around Europe in fugue states. Again, in your words, “When Albert walked, he was astonished.” That astonishment seems to be what makes it possible for readers to feel Albert. We get to experience the landscape, other people, medicine, and history through the lens of his astonishment.
So, my question. What’s the back story? How did you end up falling in love with this obscure historical figure and turning him into a novel?
Tender and filmy–that makes me really happy because that’s what I was going for. That’s the way the character always felt to me. I came across the historical figure of Albert Dadas through Ian Hacking’s nonfiction book, Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses. The story itself is riveting–a man walks in a semi-trance state throughout large swaths of Europe, often fifty miles at a pop, coming to countries away from home. I mean, what’s not to like? But the falling in love part, the part that made me want to write a novel, happened when I read the translated documents in the back of the book, which included sessions of hypnosis, and a document called “Albert’s Tale (1872-May 1886)”. Dadas had a way of telling his story–baffled, amazed, as if he was telling someone else’s adventure–that I found profoundly moving. The real guy had a great tenderness to him. He was tentative and full of wonder. He seemed to me to be seeking something in the telling, and that search was a question and the question felt as though it could be the engine for a novel. I was astonished to learn that I had been apprenticed to a traveling salesman, he says in telling the story of wandering off the first time, at the age of 12. And again, in describing another wandering, there is that astonishment: The next day I was astonished to find myself on the train and to hear the announcement, “Tours.” That astonishment you describe, that was the key. The way I–tentatively and full of wonder–started writing my novel was to write down all of the phrases Dadas repeats in the telling of his tale. So, it seems, it appears. I found myself, I discovered myself, I woke up. Writing all of these phrases down launched me into the sentence that felt like the heart of the novel because it captured both the terror and the beauty of what was happening to him. “When Albert walked, he was astonished.”
“Albert’s Longest Journey,” reproduced in Ian Hacking’s Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness.
Okay, I have two questions following from this.
Terror + beauty sounds like a recipe for the sublime. Do you think Albert’s fugue states were something like sustained sublime experiences. That might be pretty hard to live with. The sublime is fleeting by definition, right?
How close is your fictional Albert to the one you find in “Albert’s Tale.” Did you develop a style and a voice that mimics or matches his? Or did you stray from the original document?
I’m going to start with the second question…
My fictional Albert started very much in the language of the transcripts so the voice and the style of the narration–the rhythm, the repetition–began with the historical figure. But then the fictional Albert started to become his own thing. That separation was really important to me, and was part of the reason I called my character Albert, not Albert Dadas. I wanted to signal the distance, and the difference, to the reader. Partly out of respect for the real guy and partly because I wanted the story to feature feeling more than fact, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that the historical context wasn’t important. It was. But I wanted the music of the character to be the loudest thing in the book.
My hope is that the music is a big mishmash of dreamy and beautiful and anguished and fearful and so, yes, I think related to the sublime. The walking is both fleeting, and a plunge into the unknown. The thing that moved me so much about the real Albert Dadas was the way he seemed to both yearn for the walking and be wrecked by it. Again, my interpretation, and one that became central in creating the conflict for my character. There’s his desire to be astonished, to be swept up in the ecstatic state of walking, and then there’s the fact that he has no control over it. The urge overcomes him, but then it ends just as suddenly and he’s utterly lost again. He’s at its mercy, and this is what makes him so unhappy.
I feel like crying when I read your description of Albert–just like I did when I read the novel. Albert does stop walking for a while. When he does, we get this: “The problem with oblivion, Albert has learned, is that your life goes on without you, making a fool of you. ‘Have we met before?’ Albert asks, though, really, he would rather not know.” Albert lands in a clinic, full of people–doctors, nurses, administrators, and patients. One of the great things about the clinic, as you portray it, is the pre-diagnostic quality of most of its inhabitants. They’ve all got distinct mental realities and eccentricities, but we don’t get names for their problems. What we get instead is their effects on each other.
I’d love to hear you talk about writing the world of the asylum–and your observations on how a group of people gathered together with their mental illnesses shape each other. What happens to Albert while he’s there? I also want to say that a big part of me wants to move into that place.
The asylum where Albert encounters the Doctor grew out of reading I did about what was called moral treatment, particularly as defined by an English Quaker named William Tuke in the eighteenth century. Tuke founded a place called the York Retreat in opposition to the harsher treatment employed by other asylums at the time. His retreat was a beautiful country home with a high staff to patient ratio and an emphasis on rest and spiritual development. There was a lot of talk of “family.” In the early nineteenth century, Tuke’s grandson, Samuel Tuke, wrote about the retreat and used the term “moral treatment” so it was part of the psychiatric conversation in the nineteenth century as well but, even though the real Albert Dadas’s real doctor treated him very well, this place is largely my invention. Sometimes I think fiction can function as a kind of wish fulfillment, and there may have been some of that as I was writing it. I’d like to move into that clinic too! At the York Retreat–and this is what really grabbed me in relation to a man who compulsively walks–there was a discussion of stillness as an aspiration. That’s what Albert has in the asylum–a rare and comforting stint of stillness.
The other characters in the asylum came into being rather slowly. I wanted them to feel real and not merely talking heads for this or that particular illness. I really appreciate your description of the “pre-diagnostic quality.” That was so important to me. Clearly, diagnosis is a big part of that era and so a big part of the novel, but diagnoses are stories too. I was much more interested in the bottomless depths of character. I think the biggest thing that happens to Albert there, besides stillness, is the sense of being among fellow, er, travelers. Each patient has his or her own slightly skewed way of moving through the world. When there’s a crisis, for example, they each react according to their own fears. While they may not grock each other’s fears, because they operate out of fear themselves they nonetheless have a great deal of empathy for fear, even fear they don’t understand fully, if that makes sense. I didn’t want to romanticize their illnesses but it did ring true that there would be sweetness even in the midst of all of that fear. They are a community They are a family. In a lot of instances, this is the only family they’ve got.
I love that asylum. I want some moral treatment! In the meantime, though, let’s talk about how diagnoses are stories. There’s plenty of mental illness in my family–and among my loved ones generally. I don’t know of a single person who fits neatly into a DSM diagnostic category. That leads me to imagine therapeutic models that can encompass symptoms without the necessity of classifying them so rigidly. It seems to me that few medical professionals would disagree, but medical bureaucracy makes it impossible to proceed without the categories.
Of course, we need categories to understand the world. But insurance and prescription protocols demand that the categories stick–get fixed. It’s not good for anybody.
I’m wondering what you think about this, but I’m also wondering if you had any social or political motives for writing The Man Who Walked Away. The novels feels like it’s about emotions and personal experience–how that feels, what it means. But it’s not hard to extrapolate some political lessons from what you’ve written.
I’m including several quotes at the very end (from Tanya Luhrman and Ian Hacking) because they capture, more eloquently than I could, what I spent a lot of time thinking about while writing my novel. Also because these articles are really worth reading! In Hacking’s book in which Albert Dadas figures, Mad Travelers, while he avoids quite rightly being didactic (and a lot of the pleasure of reading Hacking is he never quite shows his hand completely), considers the social, political, nationalistic implications of diagnosis. Which is to say, like everything else in the world, diagnoses don’t emerge in a vacuum. How could anyone ever fit into one of these categories? And yet, what a helpful container. I’d say not only for bureaucracies but, yes, them especially, but also for the person in amorphous, scary pain who wants a container for that pain, which gives shape to it, makes sense of it. The trick is how do we respect the container and the way there is no containing a person at the same time. The ideal is a negative capability diagnostic method! And then there’s the stuff Tanya Luhrman writes about, to do with the different cultural interpretation of certain symptoms by the people experiencing them. So, in certain experiments patients in California often experienced the voices they heard as intrusions or violations, whereas in Chennai or Accra, the patients had less polarized relationships with the voices they heard. The voices weren’t an intrusion so much as a conversation with some aspect of themselves or with someone who had died, a lost mother, for example. As for whether I had social or political motives in writing this novel, I believe all fiction has an ethics behind it, which always to some degree has a social or political motive. That said, I didn’t write a nonfiction book about Dadas (that had already been done, and so brilliantly) so my primary interest lay in capturing a feeling, an emotion, empathy. That secret life of a character that Forster talks about. Increasingly these days, for me, empathy feels like a radical act. I’m not trying to make big claims about my novel as a radical work and certainly not as a radical political work, but I think fiction is an act of empathy and where you direct your empathy, and where you cultivate your readers’ empathy, has meaning and motive. For me, that included raising questions about diagnoses in general, what it is, what it’s good for, what its limitations are and then, sneaky fiction writer that I am, never answering those questions!
“We believe that these social expectations about minds and persons may shape the voice-hearing experience,” wrote the authors [Tanya Luhrman and the team of psychologists who wrote the paper for The British Journal of Psychiatry]. “The difference seems to be that the Chennai and Accra participants were more comfortable interpreting their voices as relationships and not as the sign of a violated mind.”
“Who needs the 947 pages of the DSM-5? All that most consumers need is the DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria Mobile App. The more interesting question is who needs the DSM anyway? First of all, bureaucracies. Everyone in North America who hopes their health insurance will cover or at least defray the cost of treatment for their mental illness must first receive a diagnosis that fits the scheme and bears a numerical code.”
“The DSM is not a representation of the nature or reality of the varieties of mental illness, and this is a far more radical criticism of it than Insel’s claim that the book lacks ‘validity’. I am saying it is founded on a wrong appreciation of the nature of things.”
–Ian Hacking from The London Review of Books article (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n15/ian-hacking/lost-in-the-forest)
Maud Casey and I will both be speaking at The Story of Memory Conference, hosted by The Memory Network (Roehampton University, London) in early September. The conference is an exciting gathering of artists, critics, psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists. Maud will be participating in a dialogue with literary critic Sebastian Groes. I will be participating in a dialogue with novelist Anna Stothard–as well as a panel on literary responses to twenty-first-century neuroscience. We’d love to see you there.